Super Mario Kart at 25: Dissecting a revolutionary game design
Super Mario Kart is one of the most unlikely blockbuster franchises in the industry. In 2017, it is arguably Nintendo’s most bankable series; each new title is so in demand that a three-year-old port (Mario Kart 8 Deluxe for Switch) was the franchise’s fastest selling game in its history. But when the game first appeared on this date twenty-five years ago, Super Mario Kart for the SNES was a mere oddity.
A racing game where you throw turtle shells at each other? Where you pop balloons, accelerate with mushrooms, and jump with feathers? And why is the screen is always split down the middle?
Putting the industry’s most well-known character behind the wheels of a tiny go-kart like the ones that Shriners drive around in at small town parades seemed like a poorly thought-out gimmick. Instead, it birthed a phenomenon. Super Mario Kart created a new subgenre: the multiplayer battle-racer. Many have tried to copy the formula; nearly all have failed.
The secret is the game's innovative, brilliant, generous design. Power sliding around treacherous turns, gathering ridiculous power-ups to hurl at opponents at the strategically perfect moment...the multiplayer experience is inimitable.
We spoke to a world-record holder, an indie developer, and a game historian to try and learn what the game has given to the industry, and why its allure has stood the test of time.
AN APPROACHABLE DESIGN THAT MASKS DEEP MECHANICS
From the first screen, Super Mario Kart feels bouncy and light. The music is a mix of synthetic horns and steel drums; close your eyes and imagine you’re at a kid’s birthday party in some funkier region of the globe. The background graphics feel hand-drawn; the instruction “Press B to start” appears scrawled in crayon alongside other flourishes that resemble notepad doodles.
Even the concept itself promises a lack of gravitas: Super Mario… Kart? It’s a high-concept joke made real, the kind of idea met with laughter when tossed off at the end of a late-night meeting fueled by too much coffee.
"The skill ceiling in this game is just shocking. After fifteen years of playing I’m still improving my times on a monthly basis."
And yet it worked. “With [Super Mario Kart], you have the cartoonish, perhaps even kiddy exterior,” says Karel van Duijvenboden, known online as KVD, who is arguably the best Super Mario Kart player in the world.
“But hidden beneath that is a complex, finely-tuned game with plenty of challenges for casuals and hardcore players alike.” He should know; he holds the most world records of any competitive Super Mario Kart player, with over four hundred separate incidents of setting a new record.
Hundreds like van Duijvenboden compete at the Championnat du Monde, an annual tournament held in France that has tested the best Kart players in the world since 2002. Its seemingly endless depths are continually plumbed by a community that prefers drifting around corners to flinging blue shells.
“Mario Kart, and especially the first one, is designed with skill in mind,” says KVD. “The skill ceiling in this game is just shocking. After fifteen years of playing I’m still improving my times on a monthly basis. Any Top Ten player can beat the number one [player] in a single match, at least on a good day. With a little bit of luck.”
JACK OF ALL TRADES, MASTER OF… ALL OF THEM?
Some games are real eye candy but aren’t fun to play. Some handle beautifully but sacrifice the window-dressing. Super Mario Kart was the whole package: A driving game with subtly deep mechanics, a party game with accessible controls for anyone, all tied together with Nintendo’s top-notch polish and presentation.
"Nothing was overlooked. The art, the gameplay, and the audio were all fantastic.
“Nothing was overlooked. The art, the gameplay, and the audio were all fantastic. And, of course, the cutting edge ‘Mode 7’ was a very impressive feature at that time. It was in a different class of game development for the SNES.”
“It's amazing how much Nintendo got right the first time out," says Bill Loguidice, founder of Armchair Arcade and co-author of Vintage Game Consoles: An Inside Look at Apple, Atari, Commodore, Nintendo, and the Greatest Gaming Platforms of All Time. "Whether it's the clever weapons or track designs, or the fun battle modes, this is one game that was tuned to near-perfection before its release.”
A RACER WITH CHARACTER(S)
Besides a deep gameplay system and top-notch presentation, Super Mario Kart had what no other racing game could: the most popular videogame character of all time. This wasn’t Mario’s first trip outside of the Mushroom Kingdom; he popped up in all kinds of early NES games such as Wrecking Crew, Punch-Out!!, and Golf. But Kart was the first attempt by Nintendo to leverage their deep well of known and beloved characters in a single title.
"Nintendo has had other great racing games, like F-Zero and Wave Race. But it's telling that new entries in those series have been so few and far between. I think a lot of that has to do with their lack of compelling characters."
“Mario Kart is such a beloved game series not only because of the tight gameplay,” Loguidice says, “but also because of the recognizable characters. This was the first real showcase for Nintendo's IP stable.”
An earlier racing game starred Mario and Luigi, in fact: Famicom Grand Prix II: 3D Hot Rally released in 1988 for the Japan-Only Famicom Disk System. The concept was similar, but the formula had not yet been fine-tuned: It featured the same behind-the-car camera that would be present in Super Mario Kart, but without the weapons, crazy locales, and spinning Mode 7 graphics. You also couldn’t see your driver.
Super Mario Kart’s Player Select screen is a celebration of Nintendo’s first decade of character design. Donkey Kong Jr., Yoshi, Toad, Peach, Bowser… even the underling Koopa Troopa grabs the wheel.
You'd like to think that the game would have been an enduring success without those friendly faces. But we’ve seen what happens to Nintendo’s racers without that pivotal burst of personality. “Nintendo has had other great racing games, like F-Zero and Wave Race,” Loguidice reminds us. “But it's telling that new entries in those series have been so few and far between. I think a lot of that has to do with their lack of compelling characters.” (Don't listen to him, Mr. Goroh.)
A GENRE OF ONE
What seems like a simple concept easily copied -- kart racer with goofy characters -- has proven to be a minefield for other companies. Many have attempted their own version of Mario Kart. Many have failed. Though it appears simple enough, Kart has become a singular title with little to no competition.
"Most clones fail by trying to cater too much to the casual, party-style gamer. Skill is fun."
The clones were numerous. Konami Krazy Racers. Street Racer. Muppet Race Mania, Looney Tunes Racing, PacMan World Rally, Toy Story Racer, Woody Woodpecker Racing. There are advocates for Crash Team Racing and Diddy Kong Racing, but neither series is around today. Mario Kart endures.
“An easy way to replicate Mario Kart would be to literally replicate it,” Watsham says, “but what would be the point in that?” He knows of what he speaks; his previous studio Renegade Kid made Face Racers: Photo Finish, an early kart-racer for the Nintendo 3DS which tried to replace Mario and the gang with digitized photos of you and your friends. The valiant effort stalled out once Mario Kart 7 came out just two months later.
KVD thinks most companies don’t fully understand the appeal of Kart, aping the cartoony nature without worrying about the nitty-gritty details of a deep racing game that feels good and plays well. “I get the feeling that most clones fail by trying to cater too much to the casual, friendly, party-style gamer,” he says. “Skill is fun. That’s what makes these games last much longer than the Kart clones out there.”
OLD GAME, NEW TRICKS
What’s perhaps most important about Super Mario Kart is that Nintendo didn’t stop there; it was a starting point, not an easy cash-in. Each subsequent game has built on the original, adding new ideas or honing old ones. This constant iteration is a staple of Nintendo franchises and few have seen as many dividends from this consistent attention to detail as Mario Kart.
"In all the later Mario Karts the tracks tend to be too wide and it's rarely challenging to keep your kart on the road, In the original, there are a lot of narrow corners and hairpins and the risk of crashing is always real."
To many, that steady iteration has reached its peak after twenty-five years. “At this point I don't think the series needs to be improved upon,” Watsham says. “It works. It's fun.”
With the Wii U enhanced port selling almost 2.5 million copies in its first few months alone, many would seem to agree. That means nearly one out of every two Switch owners has bought the game. But the original maintains its fans.
“It's hard to go wrong with the original,” says Loguidice. “I know that outside of the most recent version, it's the one game in the series I go back to most.”
Having played the first game competitively for years, KVD maintains the original is still the best, truest racer in the series.
“In all the later Mario Karts the tracks tend to be too wide and it's rarely challenging to keep your kart on the road,” he says. “In the case of the original Super Mario Kart, there are a lot of narrow corners and hairpins and the risk of crashing is always real.”
Nintendo has certainly focused more on accessible action and that feeling of “anyone can win” in the sequels, which suits the game’s wide appeal. Regardless of which game is your favorite, it’s hard to deny the influence Mario Kart has had on the industry and, especially, on its maker. The original showed Nintendo how formidable their line-up of characters truly was.
Mario Kart 8 Deluxe
“I think how Super Mario Kart came together was a valuable lesson for Nintendo in how to properly maximize use of their IP,” says Loguidice.
What would happen if, instead of siloing them into individual titles, they teamed up in a single game? It would take seven years to see this idea come to fruition again in the form of Super Smash Bros. on Nintendo 64. And just like that, another singular genre filled to bursting with Nintendo magic was born.